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Image / Living / Culture

Will Smith on slavery, defunding the police and whether monogamy actually works


By Sarah Finnan
28th Sep 2021

Will Smith / Instagram

Will Smith on slavery, defunding the police and whether monogamy actually works

Will Smith has opened up about everything from his upcoming movie 'Emancipation', to whether monogamy really is "relational perfection".

Sometimes you come across a celebrity profile so good that it takes you a moment to digest what it is you’ve just read. That’s what happened to me upon reading GQ’s November cover story on Will Smith. I’ve always considered myself a fan, but I didn’t really know all that much about him… nor did anyone it seems, as the article endeavours to introduce us all to the real him. 

Movies about slavery

Currently on location, “deep in the muck” about an hour from New Orleans, Will is busy working on a new project. Filming scenes for the upcoming action thriller Emancipation, the movie marks an important milestone in the star’s career. Why? It’s the first movie about slavery he’s ever agreed to do – though he wouldn’t consider it a movie about slavery, as such.

“I’ve always avoided making films about slavery,” Smith told his GQ interviewer, Wesley Lowery. “In the early part of my career… I didn’t want to show Black people in that light. I wanted to be a superhero. So I wanted to depict Black excellence alongside my white counterparts. I wanted to play roles that you would give to Tom Cruise.” The first time he considered it was when he was offered a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but as he put it, he “didn’t want to make a slavery film about vengeance”.  

Emancipation is different, he claims. It would be a “disservice to think of it as a ‘slavery movie’” according to him. Why? Because it’s not just about the dehumanising violence of slavery, but about perseverance too. Telling the story of “Whipped Peter”, the movie recounts the details of the escaped slave’s harrowing 10-day journey through the Louisiana bayou. Already having suffered a horrific whipping that almost claimed his life, the scars on Peter’s back were photographed and used to help fuel the fires of abolition during the American Civil War. The movie is about “love and the power of Black love”, Smith said. “And that was something I could rock with. We were going to make a story about how Black love makes us invincible.”

Defund the police

While Emancipation is still in the early days of production, its timing could not have been more apt and Smith’s taking it to studios last year coincided with the murder of George Floyd. “The entire world was in lockdown, [we] watched what happened to George Floyd, and stood up with one voice and said, ‘We see it. We agree’,” Smith commented. “That’s never happened before and with that the opportunities are unlike they’ve ever been. I’ve been trying to get movies made for a long time. And the amount of money that Apple is paying to tell the story [of Emancipation] is unprecedented. And those opportunities are globally present and plentiful.”

The world finally realised that there are other stories out there to tell, and Hollywood is beginning to see that they need to accommodate the demand for more diverse voices. It would be easy to question the motivations behind such sudden support for Black talent, but “Smith sees no sense in wondering if the apple is poisoned”. “I just want to encourage Black Americans to take the acknowledgement and seize upon the present global opportunities,” he added. “I would just like us to argue less about certain things and pay attention to the big ripe fruit.”

What certain things does he mean exactly? Well, it’s a “pitfall area”, to say the least, but it all pertains to the international momentum the Black Lives Matter Movement sparked. “So, ‘Abolish the police. Defund the police.’ I would love if we would just say ‘Defund the bad police.’ It’s almost like I want, as Black Americans, for us to change our marketing for the new position we’re in. So ‘critical race theory,’ just call it ‘truth theory,’ ” Smith said.

“The pendulum is swinging in our direction beautifully. And there’s a certain humility that will most capitalise on the moment for the future of Black Americans, without discounting the difficulty and the pain and the emotion. This is a difficult area to discuss, but I feel like the simplicity of Black Lives Matter was perfect. Anybody who tries to debate Black Lives Matter looks ridiculous. So when I talk about the marketing of our ideas, Black Lives Matter was perfection.”

Explaining what exactly he means by the above, the actor continued by saying, “From a standpoint of getting it done, Black Lives Matter gets it done. ‘Defund the police’ doesn’t get it done, no matter how good the ideas are. I’m not saying we shouldn’t defund the police. I’m saying, just don’t say that, because then people who would help you won’t.”

Matters of monogomy 

Movies may be his passion, but Smith has his finger in many pies and will release his own memoir, Will, this November. Teaming up with best-selling author Mark Manson (the writer behind The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck) for the project, it’s about as honest a tell-all as you can get… something readers can partly thank Manson for as he told Smith that he would only agree to the project if everything was laid out on the table. 

“We can’t have a PR person coming in and saying, ‘No, that chapter needs to go’,” he told Smith. Initially worried that a lot of the more intimate stuff would be axed, Manson said that Smith actually surprised him. “Yeah, that’s a little ugly. Let’s keep it in there’,” he’d reply. 

Detailing many different aspects of the actor’s life, from his upbringing in Wynnefield, West Philadelphia, to his tumultuous relationship with his father, Smith also recounted how some of the best advice he’s ever received came from fellow Hollywood heavyweight, Denzel Washington. “Throughout the years, I would always call Denzel. He’s a real sage. I was probably 48 or something like that and I called Denzel. He said, ‘Listen. You’ve got to think of it as the funky 40. Everybody’s 40s are funky.’ He said, ‘But just wait till you hit the f*ck-it 50s’,?” he recalled. Encouraging him to “just bear with your 40s”, Will said that’s exactly what he did and it was in his 50s that he set out on a journey to find true happiness. 

Later touching on his relationship with wife, Jada, it’s a topic that many fans will admit to being interested in – particularly after *that* Red Table Talk episode when the couple had a “frank discussion” about a period of non-monogamy in their marriage. 

“The pursuit of truth is the only way to be happy in this lifetime,” according to Smith, and both he and Jada agreed that when you tell the truth, you never have to fear being found out. “Our marriage wasn’t working,” he admitted. The book doesn’t go into it any more in-depth than that though because, ultimately, it’s not just Will’s story to tell. There was no way to chronicle the parts that happened solely from his own perspective, he couldn’t tell his story without telling hers too… and that felt like it would warrant “a whole book unto itself”. 

Last summer, Jada admitted to an “entanglement” with R&B singer August Alsina, after which a media frenzy ensued and the couple sat down for a 12-minute session on Jada’s popular Facebook show. Many probably walked away thinking that she had been the only one to have engaged with other relationships, but that wasn’t necessarily the case, Smith said. 

“Jada never believed in conventional marriage… Jada had family members that had an unconventional relationship. So she grew up in a way that was very different than how I grew up. There were significant endless discussions about, what is relational perfection? What is the perfect way to interact as a couple? And for the large part of our relationship, monogamy was what we chose, not thinking of monogamy as the only relational perfection,” he confessed. 

“We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way. And marriage for us can’t be a prison. And I don’t suggest our road for anybody. I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences that the freedoms that we’ve given one another and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love.”